Director Joe Dante is revered by his fans not only as a
filmmaker but also because of his genuine passion for classic and cult cinema.
Dante, like so many other filmmakers and actors who became successes, was a protégé
of Roger Corman, starting out as an editor. Before long, he had progressed to directing and had a hit with his 1978 horror flick "Piranha". His deft ability to make audiences cringe as well as laugh became his trademark. More successful films followed including a segment of the "Twilight Zone" feature film, his werewolf classic "The Howling", "Gremlins", which is considered a classic by the generation who saw it as children, "Innerspace", "Amazon Women on the Moon", "The 'Burbs", "Matinee" and "Small Soldiers". In recent years, Dante has been busy operating his extremely popular web site Trailers From Hell, which showcases original movie trailers from decades ago, complete with introductions and commentaries from esteemed filmmakers and movie scholars. Dante'S most recent movie, "Burying the Ex" is specifically geared to younger audiences. It involves a twenty-something guy whose sexy but overbearing girlfriend Evelyn dies tragically in an accident. He blames himself for her death but begins dating someone else almost immediately. Things are going swimmingly with his new love until the recently deceased Evelyn comes back from the grave and demands that they resume their relationship- and she's not taking "no" for an answer. Its an amusing romp that spotlights a cast of exceptionally talented young actors. The film represents true "guerilla movie-making", having been shot on a limited budget in L.A. over a period of twenty days. "Burying the Ex" was shown at the Venice Film Festival, where it won some favorable reviews including one from the influential Hollywood Reporter. Some other critics griped that the film was too modest in its ambitions want Dante to do movies that are more reflective of his talents as an esteemed director. Indeed, Dante has ambitions to do just that, with a long-planned film biography of Roger Corman. We caught up with Dante to discuss "Burying the Ex" as well as his plans for the future.
CINEMA RETRO: What drew you to this particular project?
JOE DANTE: It's based on a short film by the screenwriter Andrew Trezza, which I haven't seen. He gave me a script a few years ago and I responded to it because I thought it was funny and I liked the characters. I also think it's a situation that the audience can relate to. I think most people have been in a similar situation. They are in a relationship that isn't good for them and they don't know how to get out of it. They stick around longer than they should. I thought that to expand on that concept and make a screwball comedy out of it was a great idea.
CR: As someone who has been involved in editing, screenwriting and even acting, did you have much input into the final screenplay?
JD: Sure. We worked on it together. It was originally a little longer than it needed to be, I thought, and so we pared it down a little bit. You know, over a period of years when you're working on a project, you can't help but doodle in the margins and try to improve it. But it's still pretty much the script that I originally read. It's better for the fact that we had a little bit longer to work on it.
CR: Is it true that you shot the entire movie in twenty days?
JD: Yes. I think of it as a return to my roots.
CR: How long were the shooting days?
JD: We couldn't go over twelve hours. There was no overtime in the deal. So we just shot until we couldn't. On a film like this it's really important that you get the shots so you don't have to go back on a location. There aren't that many locations. In fact, they're all within seven blocks of each other. You have to adjust your schedule when you're working on a low budget.
CR: What are the pros of working on an indie film compared to a major studio production?
JD: The pros are that you are pretty much left alone. There's not a zillion dollars riding on the movie so there's not that kind of panic in the executive suites. You know, worries that, God forbid, the picture might be too offbeat or have too many rough edges or it might alienate a segment of the audience. You don't have to worry about any of that because it's not that big of an outlay. Unfortunately, to get that kind of freedom, you have to give up the bells and whistles and do without some of the tools you would usually have to make the movie. You also have to do it very quickly and you have to make decisions fast. But sometimes this lends a certain energy to these movies that a long schedule, big budget movie might not have.
CR: How involved were you in the casting process? The four leads are very impressive young actors. Did you rely mostly on the decisions of the casting director, Brad Gilmore?
JD: Well, Brad has been on the movie as long as I've been. We've been looking for casts for years because this picture was gestating for such a long time. Then all of a sudden it came together. There was a certain amount of money available for a certain time frame and it meant we had to make the movie right away- and we had to make it in twenty days. So the cast came together in one week, believe it or not. Serendipitously, it happened to come together with the exact same people we wanted in the exact right roles to the point that I didn't have to do a lot of directing. To me, the fun of the movie is the cast.
CR: It's also a typical Joe Dante film in the sense that there are many homages to the cinematic past, from Dick Miller's appearance to vintage movie art. Who else would have an Italian poster for "The Pit and the Pendulum" in a modern film?
JD: Who else has one?
CR: Yes, I'm afraid that many of us who are obsessed with older films are living, breathing examples of arrested development. I suppose we hope we never really grow up. By the way, what do you think of today's horror films compared to those you honor from the distant past?
JD: I think there is a lot of talent out there. The hurdle that they have to overcome is that the audience they are making the films for is so steeped in the details of how these movies were made before that it becomes very difficult to try to surprise and shock them with something new that they haven't seen. Unless you want to go to the lengths of "The Human Centipede", there really isn't a great deal you can to shock people.
CR: I'd like to see directors, including yourself, make movies like the original version of "The Haunting", in which the horror element is suggested rather than blatantly illustrated with special effects.
JD: I think those are the kind of horror films that work the best. They're also the ones I think have the longest legs because movies that rely on showing things very clearly can date very quickly. Whereas a movie like "The Innocents" or "The Haunting" or "Dead of Night" are still intensely creepy because of things that you don't see. There are things you think you see because the director and director of photography make you believe you are seeing them. To me, that's the best kind of horror movie. Those are my favorite ones. The current ones, I think, tend not to be very psychological, although there have been some very good ones. "The Orphanage" was quite good and so was "The Devil's Backbone", for example, is a very good horror film. This genre used to be considered a "B" movie genre but it's now an "A" movie genre and some of the subtlety has disappeared.
CR: The makeup effects in "Burying the Ex" are particularly impressive, given the limited budget and production schedule...
JD: Well, Gary Tunnicliffe, our makeup guy, had his work cut out for him because of our limited shooting day. There was only so much time to put the makeup on and to take the makeup off. That had to all be coordinated very carefully so we wouldn't lose time. We also didn't shoot it in sequence so he had to have a chart to remind of how decomposed Evelyn would be. That was also hard for Ashley Greene because, when you are building a character- especially a crazy character who has mood swings- you have to be careful about what you did yesterday and how does that fit into the movie.
CR: Speaking of the character of Evelyn, do I have to even ask if her name is derived from "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave"?
JD: I started making trailers when I first go into the business. I've always loved movie trailers. I had a collection on 35mm and there was a lot of cool stuff but it was just sitting in a vault. I was never showing it to anybody so I thought, "This is crazy. These things need to be out there." I thought that just putting them on the internet wouldn't be exciting in itself. So I thought about doing commentary tracks for about five of these trailers. So I did and I put them up on the internet where they sat unnoticed for a while. Then my friends started to see it and they would say there were movies they wanted to talk about. So it just grew. I think John Landis and Edgar Wright were among the first contributors. It just became a thing to do and now we have over a thousand trailers on our site. There are fifty different commentators, all talking about what the movies meant to them and trying to get you to see the movie. Today, when there are so many movies available to see than there ever was in my lifetime, there needs to be some curating factor that tells people that this is a good movie, that this is a movie that you never heard of, this is a director that you've never heard of, this is an actor you should know. It's very rewarding to me when people come up to me and say, "I just saw this movie that I found on this site and it's a great movie and I'm going to see other movies by this guy now." That's what it's all about.
CR: Are you still toying with the concept of doing a Roger Corman biopic?
JD: I wouldn't say "toying"...I'd say slogging, trying to get somebody to finance the movie for about the last ten years. But I haven't given up and I still think it's a great project and we're looking at all sorts of alternate ways of getting it done. It's a funny movie about Roger doing "The Trip". Everything in it is true, which makes it even funnier. We came within a hair of making it twice. I think if we can get that close twice, we can get that close again.
CR: One last question. It's regarding the recent passing of Sir Christopher Lee, who you worked with. Would you care to share any thoughts about him?
JD: It's very sad but on the other hand, the man lived to be 93 years old. He went out at the top of his game, singing heavy metal, for God's sake. He's probably more famous now than he was in his Hammer heyday because of the breadth of his career. I know he was having health problems. He couldn't travel because he couldn't bear to sit in an airplane seat. So the factor of age was really encroaching quickly but it didn't slow him down. He's still got unreleased movies. He was a real character in person and a wonderful guy to be with. He was so amusing and so the opposite of his public persona.